Beyond a certain point it is hardly possible to discern degrees of evil or degrees of cruelty. And yet I think it may be said of Jehan Calvin, dictator of Geneva in the sixteenth century, that he was more appallingly cruel and more intensely, intrinsically, through-and-through evil than other great persecutors, dictators and mass murderers of history. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Torquemada are the very names of evil, so what was it about Calvin that can distinguish him as specially terrible in his own nature than even any of these?
He oppressed the subjects of his dictatorship unremittingly and mercilessly; but so, you say, did the others. Not content with killing his enemies, he prescribed extreme tortures for them while they survived to suffer them; and yes, so did the others. But – and here we come to the nub of the case – Calvin was different in that he (often, if not always) personally specified the torments for the particular victim. He gave thought to the minutiae of their sufferings. All the others, even Catholic Inquisitors like Torquemada, issued general orders for terrorizing, torturing, killing. Calvin gave a personal service, tailoring his cruelty to his individual prey.
And that’s not all that distinguishes him among human monsters. Consider this: he was squeamish. He could not stand the sight of blood. He was afraid of pain. He felt horror at the thought of physical suffering – so he made thinking about it into a spiritual exercise, to strengthen by self-inflicted agony, as a monk does with a hairshirt, his resolve to do what was hardest for him in the service of his God. He ordered the infliction of agony, then meditated on the process, imagining it as fully as he could. He nourished his spirit on visions of torture.
This he did in private. The spiritual discipline he forced himself to undergo did not impel him to the prison and the public square to witness the torments and killings that he prescribed. He never attended a racking, a flogging, a breaking on the wheel, a burning to death. That far in the service of his God he would not push himself.
This grooming of his soul by inflicting suffering on others, did not replace general orders of oppression. He gave those too. He instituted a totalitarian reign of terror. He was as convinced a collectivist as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and the rest. He would allow “no liberty, no freedom of the will, for [a] man could only misuse such privileges. … [He, Calvin] must frighten him … until he unresistingly accepts his position in the pious and obedient herd, until he has merged in that herd all that is individual within him, so that the individual, the extraordinary, vanishes without leaving a trace.”
So wrote Stefan Zweig in his devastating dissection of Calvin and Calvinism, The Right to Heresy. He goes on:
“To achieve this draconian suppression of personality, to achieve this vandal expropriation of the individual in favour of the community, Calvin had a method all his own, the famous Church ‘discipline’. A harsher curb upon human impulses and desires has hardly been devised by and imposed upon man down to our own days [pre-Second World War]. From the first hour of his dictatorship, this brilliant organizer herded his flock … within a barbed-wire entanglement of … prohibitions, the so-called ‘Ordinances’; simultaneously creating a special department to supervise the working of terrorist morality … called the Consistory [which was] expressly instructed to keep watch upon the private life of every one in Geneva. … Private life could hardly be said to exist any longer … From moment to moment, by day and by night, there might come a knocking at the entry, and a number of ‘spiritual police’ announce a ‘visitation’ without the citizen concerned being able to offer resistance. Once a month, rich and poor, the powerful and the weak, had to submit to the questioning of these professional ‘police des moeurs’. “
The moral police poked into every corner, examined every part of every house, and even the bodies of those who lived in it. Their clothes and shoes, the hair on their heads, was inspected. Clothes must be dark and plain; hair must not be artificially curled.
“From the bedroom they passed on to the kitchen table, to ascertain whether the prescribed diet was not being exceeded by a soup or a course of meat, or whether sweets and jams were hidden away somewhere.”
They pried into bookshelves – only books approved by the Consistory were permitted.
“The servants were asked about the behaviour of their masters, and the children were cross-questioned as to the doings of their parents.”
Visitors to the city had their baggage examined. Every letter, in and out, was opened. Citizens could not write letters to anyone outside the city, and any Genevan permitted to travel abroad was watched in foreign lands by Calvin’s spies.
Spying became universal. Almost everyone, in fear of being thought heretical in the least degree, and to prove himself clean and upright, spied on everyone else.
“Whenever a State inaugurates a reign of terror, the poisonous plant of voluntary denunciation flourishes like a loathsome weed … otherwise decent folk are driven by fear to play the part of informer. … After some years, the Consistory was able to abolish official supervision, since all the citizens had become voluntary controllers.”
As far as he could, Calvin put an end to pleasure. Music – except for what Calvin deemed to be sacred – was forbidden. So was dancing, skating and sport. Theaters and all other public amusements including popular festivals, were prohibited. Wheeled carriages were not allowed. People had to walk to wherever they needed to go. Guests at family celebrations, even weddings and baptisms, were limited in number to twenty. (The names parents could give their children had to be from an approved list.) The red wine of the district could be drunk in small quantities, but no other alcohol. Innkeepers were not allowed to serve their guests until they had seen them saying their prayers, and had to spy on them throughout their stay and report on them to the authorities.
Punishments included imprisonment in irons, hanging, decapitation, burning to death.
“Everything was forbidden which might have relieved the grey monotony of existence; and forbidden, of course, was any trace of mental freedom in the matter of the printed or spoken word.”
“The first thought,” Stefan Zweig declares, “of any one of dictatorial temperament, is to suppress or gag opinions different from his own.”
One man who dared to argue with Calvin was a Spaniard named Miguel Servetus. A child of the Reformation, he innocently thought he could express his own boldly Protestant opinions. He thought Calvin was the very man to hear him expound his personal interpretations of Holy Writ. He could not have been more mistaken. For having the effrontery to send them to him, Calvin had the man thrown into prison. “For weeks … he was kept like a condemned murderer in a cold and damp cell, with irons on his hands and feet. His clothes hung in rags upon his freezing body; he was not provided with a change of linen. The most primitive demands of hygiene were disregarded. No one might tender him the slightest assistance.”
Finally, for daring to disagree with Calvin, Servetus was condemned to death by the dictator’s order. The death Calvin chose for him was “roasting with a slow fire”.
‘The prisoner was brought out of prison in his befouled rags. … His beard tangled, his visage dirty and wasted, his chains rattling, he tottered as he walked. … In front of the steps of the Town Hall, the officers of the law … thrust him to his knees. The doomed man’s teeth chattered with cold … In his extremity, he crawled on his knees nearer to the municipal authorities assembled on the steps, and implored that by their grace he might be decapitated before he was burned, ‘lest the agony should drive me to repudiate the convictions of a lifetime’. This boon was denied him. Relentlessly, ‘the procession moved on towards the place of execution. … The wood was piled round the stake to which the clanking chains had been nailed. The executioner bound the victim’s hands. … The chains attached to the stake were wound four or five times around it and around the poor wretch’s wasted body. Between this and the chains, the executioner’s assistants then inserted the book and the manuscript which Servetus had sent to Calvin under seal to ask Calvin’s fraternal opinion upon it. Finally, in scorn, there was pressed upon the martyr’s brow a crown of leaves impregnated with sulphur. … The executioner kindled the faggots and the murder began.
“When the flames rose around him, Servetus uttered so dreadful a cry that many of the onlookers turned their eyes away from the pitiful sight. Soon the smoke interposed a veil in front of the writhing body, but the yells of agony grew louder and louder, until at length came an imploring scream: ‘Jesus, Son of the everlasting God, have pity on me!’”
Needless to say, neither Jesus nor an everlasting God did anything to relieve the roasting man.
‘The struggle with death lasted half an hour. Then the flames abated, the smoke dispersed, and attached to the blackened stake there remained, above the glowing embers, a black, sickening, charred mass, a loathsome jelly, which had lost human semblance. …
“But where was Calvin in this fearful hour? … He was in his study, windows closed. … He who had really willed and commanded this ‘pious murder’, kept discreetly aloof. Next Sunday, however, clad in his black cassock, he entered the pulpit to boast of the deed before a silent congregation, declaring it to have been a great deed and a just one, although he had not dared to watch the pitiful spectacle.”
To this day, Jehan Calvin is regarded as a great Christian whose teaching continues to shape the lives of millions of citizens in the Western world through the Presbyterian and various “Reformed” churches. People are no longer burnt to death for disagreeing with the master. But dictatorship, in the name of similarly dogmatic collectivist faiths, is not absent from the modern world, not even from America now, in 2010. A much vaster community has fallen under an organizer of dictatorial temperament. His consistory has made it plain that they wish to control what you eat, how you live in your homes, and what you say. Children are being urged to impress the leader’s messages on their parents. The names of those who disagree with him are blackened, and the silencing of broadcast dissent is openly advocated.
What should be done about it? There are conservative voices maintaining that the way to resist incipient totalitarianism is to “return to Christian values”.
Our hope is that this reminder of how Christian values affected life in the past may serve not only as a cautionary tale against collectivism and dictatorship, but also as a rebuttal of the idea that Christianity can be a counterforce against them.
Jillian Becker April 25, 2010